Some slightly belated Constitution Day reflections

Yesterday was Constitution Day, on which Americans celebrate the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, and institutions of higher learning throughout the land scramble for Constitution-themed programming, lest they jeopardize their federal funding. As for how we celebrate, well, let’s just say it’s a work in progress. There are no fireworks, or bacchanalia of feasting and football, or parades to commemorate veterans or to remember the accomplishments of organized labor. We don’t celebrate our foundational political document in the way that Jews celebrate theirs, with song, drink, and dancing with Torah scrolls. Perhaps the most appropriate celebration, barring adoption of a secular analogue to the Simchat Torah festivities, simply involves reflection on the Constitution. In that spirit, I offer some reflection:

  • The Constitution reflected the most sophisticated political philosophy of its era, as well as lessons learned from history, both ancient and very recent. So why is so much of the celebration devoted to a mindless veneration that refuses to acknowledge that we have an advantage over James Madison and company, namely 200+ years of practical experience with, and scholarship about, political institutions?
  • Make no mistake about it: when it comes to thinking about the Constitution, the American public is decidedly prone to mindless veneration. Just as Americans proclaim that the U.S. health care system is the best in the world, despite the substantial body of evidence to the contrary, we resist considering the prospect that other institutional arrangements might produce better governance. When our governance does not address the pressing issues of the day, or addresses them in a dysfunctional manner, we tend to attribute blame to individual political actors or parties, or to the political class as a whole. The implicit assumption is that it’s easier to make flawed human beings less flawed, or to improve our ability to identify and empower less flawed human beings, than it is to rethink the environment in which these flawed human beings operate. But the multitude of failed attempts throughout human history to perfect human behavior, coupled with what students of government understand about the significance of institutional design, should lead us to question that assumption.
  • Constitution Day’s focus on the text of the document–a variation on the Protestant principle of sola scriptura–underplays the importance of everything else that has come to shape constitutional understandings since 1787. These understandings reflect centuries’ worth of judicial interpretation, historical practices and traditions, and consensually accepted norms. States, for example, are obliged to respect virtually all of the protections enumerated in the Bill of Rights, but not because the Constitution’s text clearly commands that obligation. Rather, the incorporation of the Bill of Rights has resulted from an interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause that we (OK, Justice Thomas, not you) have accepted for some time. Try to envision states no longer bound to abide by the Bill of Rights, and you’ll see why the gloss placed on the Constitution should not be overlooked in favor of a focus on the original text alone.
  • Finally, if you’re not in the mood to celebrate the Constitution, I’d recommend two thought-provoking books by Sanford Levinson: Our Undemocratic Constitution (2006) and Framed (2013).

Now go out and take advantage of those post-Constitution Day sales!

Another lesson in why not to hyperventilate over lower court rulings

On Thursday, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to rehear the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) en banc (with participation of all of the circuit’s judges, as opposed to the standard three-judge panel). In so doing, it illustrated why breaking out your victory celebration midway through the second quarter of a game is ill-advised.

Opponents of the Affordable Care Act thought they had much to celebrate earlier this summer when a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals panel held that the Act’s subsidies for health insurance were available only to purchasers who obtained their insurance through a state-run exchange. Under this reading, which relied on a curiously rigid application of textualism that textualists themselves normally reject, those who bought from the federal exchange because their home states declined to create their own exchanges would be ineligible to receive the subsidy. If the ruling were to hold, it would fatally undermine Obamacare by stripping out the subsidies that make insurance affordable for millions of people who did not previously have insurance, but are now required to do so by the Act’s individual mandate. Lamentations and rending of garments, under those circumstances, would be an appropriate response for backers of Obamacare, not to mention the several million people who would lose their affordable health insurance.

As it turns out, though, a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals panel rejected the argument that prevailed in the D.C Circuit, thereby generating a split among the circuits that increases the likelihood that the Supreme Court will grant review. The ACA opponents from the Fourth Circuit quickly petitioned the Supreme Court for review, in the hopes that the Court wouldn’t pass on a second opportunity to deliver a fatal blow to Obamacare. But the plan to fast-track the case to the Supreme Court was threatened by the Obama administration’s petition to the D.C. Circuit to rehear the case en banc, where a sizable majority of Democratic appointees (unlike the Republican majority on the panel that heard the case earlier) would be likely to reverse the panel’s holding. A ruling by the whole circuit in favor of the administration’s position would eliminate the circuit split and improve the odds that the Supreme Court would pass on the issue altogether.

To prevent this scenario, ACA opponents had to convince the D.C. Circuit not to agree to rehear the case, thereby preserving the circuit split. While the petition requesting review of the Fourth Circuit’s holding argued that Supreme Court review is crucial to resolve uncertainty about the continuing legality of subsidies, the argument against rehearing in the D.C. Circuit claimed that en banc review is unnecessary because the issue of statutory interpretation addressed by the panel review does not rise to the level of “exceptional importance” necessary to justify en banc review. Alternatively, had the Supreme Court granted review of the Fourth Circuit decision before a ruling on the D.C. Circuit rehearing petition could be issued, the en banc petition would have been left for naught. Thursday’s announcement  precluded that possibility as well.

But ACA supporters might be advised to avoid excessively celebrating their recent good news. The absence of a circuit split decreases the probability of Supreme Court review, but not to zero. The Court could decide that the issue is sufficiently important to merit review even if all circuits that have spoken so far agree on the underlying legal issue. Should the Court go this route, we will be left with several cliffhangers. What will Justice Scalia’s brand of textualism lead him to do when confronted with a law he despises? Will Justice Kennedy, who does not typically share Scalia’s commitment to this interpretive approach, go along for the ride? Will Chief Justice Roberts continue to act strategically, as he had in the first round of Affordable Care Act litigation, in the face of the prospect of millions of people being stripped of affordable health insurance? The announcement of the en banc hearing reduces, but does not eliminate, the possibility that folks on both sides will face some anxiety until we eventually receive answers to these questions. As such, ACA supporters, as well as opponents, might want to wait before dumping the Gatorade buckets on the legal teams fighting for their respective positions.

“The card says Moops”

My favorite example of mindlessly formalistic, ruthlessly result-oriented textual interpretation comes from George Costanza. In the “Bubble Boy” episode of “Seinfeld”‘s fourth season, George denied his opponent a win in Trivial Pursuit based on an obvious typo. What frustrated George’s opponent so much was the transparent bad faith displayed by George, who knew perfectly well that Spain was not invaded in the 8th century by the Moops. Today, a DC Circuit Court of Appeals panel struck down crucial Affordable Care Act (ACA) health insurance subsidies, based on a literalist reading of a statutory provision that renders the rest of the statute absurd and defies the understanding of every participant in the legislative debate about the availability of tax credits for people who bought their insurance through the federal exchange because their states refused to set up their own exchanges.  My advice to the judges in the majority in Halbig v. Burwell: when your reasoning closely resembles George Costanza’s, you might need to rethink your position (“do the opposite”?).

Some more thoughts about Hobby Lobby

* First off, a trip to the Wayback Machine:

Precisely because “we are a cosmopolitan nation made up of people of almost every conceivable religious preference,” and precisely because we value and protect that religious divergence, we cannot afford the luxury of deeming presumptively invalid, as applied to the religious objector, every regulation of conduct that does not protect an interest of the highest order. The rule respondents favor would open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind – ranging from compulsory military service, to the payment of taxes, to health and safety regulation such as manslaughter and child neglect laws, compulsory vaccination laws, drug laws, and traffic laws; to social welfare legislation such as minimum wage laws, child labor laws, animal cruelty laws, environmental protection laws, and laws providing for equality of opportunity for the races.

This quotation comes from Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), in which the Court held that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause did not protect the sacramental use of peyote. I was curious as to whether the Hobby Lobby majority opinion, which 2014 Scalia joined, would acknowledge the existence of 1990 Scalia’s statement. Justice Samuel Alito did quote Smith briefly, but otherwise his opinion did its level-headed best to ignore its existence. I also wondered whether 2014 Scalia would write separately to respond to 1990 Scalia. I didn’t really expect 2014 Scalia to address the matter; that would take a certain level of self-questioning that would be out of character for him. But part of me hoped that 2014 Scalia would say some combination of these things:

(1) I was wrong then, but the Court is right now.

(2) Smith was different because it involved a constitutional claim, while Hobby Lobby involved a statutory claim under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

(3) I was right in Smith, but the Court has upheld the validity of the RFRA (as applied to federal action) and follow-up legislation in 2000. As such, I’m bound to adopt the Court’s current position.

Then again, I hope for all kinds of things….

* Once again, the Roberts Court’s guiding principle–The Bossman Always Wins–predicts an outcome. The owners of the “closely held” corporation have religious rights, but their thousands of employees do not.

* Alito displays a curious selectivity when it comes to which slippery slopes worry him. He writes that under the Obama administration’s view, “RFRA would permit the Government to require all employers to provide coverage for any medical procedure allowed by law in the jurisdiction in question–for example, third-trimester abortions or assisted suicide,” despite the absence of any inkling that anyone might request such a requirement. But he’s dismissive of the prospect that granting RFRA rights to Hobby Lobby regarding its objection to IUDs and Plan B would produce a flood of requests for exemptions from other federal mandates, despite ample evidence that such requests are already being made.

* Politically, both sides get something. Religious conservatives get to celebrate what they see as a victory against forces seeking to quash religious liberty. Opponents of the Affordable Care Act get to celebrate a blow against Big Government. And Democrats get to enjoy the electoral gift that has fallen into their laps.

* Finally, I find persuasive Joey Fishkin’s argument at Balkinization that the case, at its heart, was really about “the politics of recognition”: 

It is about recognizing conservative religious claims that (a) contraceptives are different from other forms of health care (an issue the Court somewhat finesses by suggesting that immunizations and so on “may be supported by different interests”), (b) religious people’s “conscience” deserves great deference and priority in the public sphere, certainly a higher symbolic priority than women’s health, and (c) perhaps most specifically on point, that religion is not something people do on their own time, in their own churches, but rather, is a way that apparently even large for-profit businesses may conduct their affairs—and if they choose to do so, society must find ways to accommodate their “full participation in the economic life of the Nation” (p.46).

Hobby Lobby: What comes next?

Most of the opposition to the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Hobby Lobby case has focused on the majority’s position that closely held for-profit corporations have religious rights under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). If a for-profit corporation can claim a religion-based exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) requirement that insurance plans cover all FDA-approved contraception, why can’t it claim similar exemptions from anti-discrimination law, or from covering other forms of medical treatment? Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion takes great pains to deny that its logic might inspire a flood of RFRA litigation. But is this disclaimer persuasive? More broadly, is Hobby Lobby likely to tangibly transform the relationship between religion and the state? Or will it be an opinion that portends more than it delivers substantially, much as US v. Lopez did with respect to federalism? The answer will depend on how several other questions are addressed:

  1. Can the logic of the Court’s ruling constrain future RFRA claims? In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asks whether “the exemption the Court holds RFRA demands for employers with religiously grounded objections to the use of certain contraceptives extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations (Christian Scientists, among others)?”

    Alito dismisses this slippery slope on two grounds. The first is that employers had not sought religion-based exemptions to Affordable Care Act requirements other than contraception. Fair enough, but Alito ignores the prospect that employers might have wanted to see how the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood (another for-profit corporate plaintiff) challenges fared before investing resources in litigation. Now that the Court has opened the door, employers might feel emboldened to push what previously would have been considered specious claims.

    The second lies in the requirements of the RFRA, which states that laws meant to apply generally may not “substantially burden” one’s exercise of religion unless they serve a compelling government interest and employ the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. For the Hobby Lobby majority, the dissent’s parade of horribles is far-fetched because for each example, one could readily demonstrate the strength of the government’s interest and the absence of means that do not inhibit religious belief. In contrast, the majority assumed the compelling interest behind the contraceptive mandate (Anthony Kennedy wrote separately to make his recognition of this interest explicit) but held that the existence of a work-around for religious institutions and non-profit corporations demonstrated the availability of less restrictive means. What is unclear is why this logic would preclude exemptions in the situations described by the dissent. If, to use Ginsburg’s words, “let the government pay” constitutes a less restrictive means, then employers will be able to claim religious sanction to off-load all kinds of obligations.

  2. Hobby Lobby objected to being required to cover four types of contraception that prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus, but it did not object to covering the other sixteen FDA-approved methods covered under the ACA. The majority notes this information as part of its attempt to minimize the scope of the ruling, but there’s nothing in the logic of the opinion to limit its effect this way. Once an employer posits a sincerely held religious belief–and no one on the Court expressed any desire to doubt the sincerity of employers’ expressions of belief–that is substantially burdened by a policy, the stringent RFRA test kicks in. Now that it has won, what will Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood do next? The answer will say much about what the Court’s ruling today will ultimately mean.
  3. The majority in Hobby Lobby stated that the RFRA exemption covered only “closely held” corporations, presumably because they, unlike publicly traded companies, are capable of holding a unified position on what the owners’ religious consciences dictate. But the definition of “person” used by the majority opinion makes no distinction based on how ownership is distributed. According to the Dictionary Act (yes, there is an act of Congress with this title), it includes “corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals.” The majority’s limitation of its holding to closely held corporations, then, rests solely on an empirical expectation. Should a publicly traded corporation assert an RFRA claim, on what basis could a court reject it, given Monday’s ruling?
  4. One less restrictive means proposed by the Court is the one already offered by the Obama administration to religious institutions and non-profits raising religious objections: have insurers or third-party benefit administrators provide contraception coverage at no cost to the employee. The problem here is that this work-around itself is currently being litigated, as dozens of suits have been brought by employers claiming that any involvement in arranging for contraception coverage, even if through a third-party, implicates them in immoral behavior. Does the Court’s mention in Hobby Lobby of the work-around for non-profits signals a lack of sympathy for the plaintiffs’ positions? If not, it would be disingenuous to offer a solution as a reason why the contraception coverage mandate fails to pass the RFRA, only to turn around and reject that very solution soon after. 

For now, what we can say about Hobby Lobby is that with respect to the battle over the Affordable Care Act, the ruling, to use Churchill’s words, “is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” More thoughts to follow….

21st Century Technology at the Supreme Court

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court released two rulings displaying varying degrees of confidence in its understanding of modern technology. In one, it held that police searches of cellphones incident to lawful arrest could not be conducted in the absence of a warrant, barring exigent circumstances. In the other, it ruled that Aereo, a streaming service enabling subscribers to view broadcast TV over the Internet, violated copyright laws because it rebroadcast network programming without paying the retransmission fees that cable providers have to pay. The need to apply old legal principles to new situations featuring emerging technology is hardly a new one, but I would argue that the scope and rapidity of modern technological change have heightened the demands placed on the justices. Wednesday’s cases highlight the ways in which the Court conceives of new technology and how its understanding shapes the scope of each ruling.

In Riley v. California, today’s Fourth Amendment ruling (decided together with U.S. v. Wurie), the justices had little difficulty fitting smartphones into Fourth Amendment doctrine governing searches incidental to lawful arrest. That’s not surprising, given the ubiquity of the devices. The least technologically aware justice, in all likelihood, either owns a smartphone or has played around with someone else’s. As such, the justices know the devices’ immense capabilities and recognize the privacy interests at stake when law enforcement officials seek to obtain evidence contained in one’s phone. It takes little imagination to conceive of smartphones as containing both “papers” and “effects” that the text of the Fourth Amendment protects against unwarranted search and seizure; as a result, a pro-privacy ruling could be supported by committed originalists as well as those favoring a more dynamic interpretative approach.

In contrast, the Aereo case (American Broadcasting Cos. v. Aereo) presented a greater challenge for the Court. Given the demographics of those likeliest to “cut the cord” and eschew cable in favor of newer, nimbler methods of obtaining programming, my hunch is that the justices are unlikely to adopt cutting-edge technology like Aereo. To their credit, they strove mightily during oral argument to get a firmer handle on what exactly Aereo did and the extent to which it was acting like a cable company, only with a magic loophole enabling it to avoid retransmission fees. (The entire business model is built around the existence of this loophole.) The justices did share a distaste for Aereo’s business model; where they differed was on whether they could close the loophole themselves (the majority position) or had to leave to Congress the job of fixing the statute that left open the loophole (the dissent). At the same time, however, there was widespread concern that a ruling against Aereo could jeopardize popular cloud storage services, such as Dropbox and Google Drive, that could also be used to stream copyrighted material. The majority addressed this scenario by taking great pains to state that the ruling against Aereo applies to Aereo only, and that judgments about the legality of other services would not be addressed in advance of legal challenges. Whether the Court can effectively limit the scope of the Aereo ruling in this manner remains an open question, but the desire to set such a limit reflects concern about the unintended consequences of ruling on less familiar technology in a way that might hinder future innovation.


Mental disability and the death penalty

One telltale sign of capital punishment’s entrenchment in American politics can be seen in the unwillingness of death-penalty abolitionists to bring full-frontal challenges to the practice. Ever since 1976, when the Supreme Court held capital punishment constitutional, opponents have opted instead to chip away at capital punishment, focusing on such issues as racial bias, categories of defendants who may be executed, the use of the death penalty for offenses other than murder, and methods of execution. This strategy reflected a certain pessimism about whether a Supreme Court that had grown more conservative since the mid-70s would consider rethinking the constitutionality of capital punishment. While we can’t know for certain whether this pessimism was justified–my sense is that it was–we do know that attacking around the edges has produced some results that abolitionists like.

One of these results was a ban on executing mentally disabled capital defendants. Prior to the Court’s 2002 holding in Atkins v. Virginia, states had leeway to determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether defendants’ cognitive limitations so closely reflect diminished moral culpability as to warrant exclusion from execution. Atkins stripped sentencing juries and judges of this discretion, yet the Court opted not to establish a bright-line definition of mental disability. Instead, as it has done with insanity, it left states to define the concept. The result was substantial variation across states, with several adopting a strict IQ cutoff for determining eligibility to be executed.

It was inevitable that the Court would be called upon to determine how states would be allowed to apply Atkins, but whether the Court would resolve the question conclusively remained open. Tuesday’s ruling, in which the Court held that states could not rely exclusively on IQ scores to determine whether a capital defendant is mentally disabled, did not provide this conclusive resolution. The Court, recognizing that IQ test results have an associated margin of error, stated that when a defendant’s score falls within this margin of error, he or she must be allowed to present other evidence supporting a claim of mental disability. Anyone who hoped for the Court to impose a bright-line rule would have been disappointed, as the primary thrust of the ruling in Hall v. Florida was to deny states the right to impose their own bright-line rules.

Why did the Court decline the opportunity to bring some clarity to this area of the law, and to prevent lower courts from being inundated by Atkins claims? Consider what the majority coalition–no point being coy; we’re really talking about Justice Kennedy now–needed to do to remain a majority coalition:

  • Avoid questioning the constitutionality of capital punishment itself.
  • Avoid reversing the Atkins precedent.
  • Avoid allowing the states to effectively reverse Atkins by establishing a definition of mental disability that virtually no defendant could meet.
  • Avoid having to establish best practices for states with the death penalty.

Given these conflicting imperatives, the majority’s decision makes perfect sense. States still have some leeway to determine their own definitions of mental disability, but their application of these definitions must allow for some flexibility and must account for scientific understanding of cognitive disability. The Court doesn’t have to worry about imposing a definition that could be made obsolete by future developments in how the medical community understands mental disability. And the Court doesn’t have to confront the larger question about capital punishment’s compatibility with the Eighth Amendment’s stricture against “cruel and unusual punishment.” The community of death penalty opponents will take Hall as a meaningful victory, and it should.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 197 other followers